Mary Beard sits for naked portrait in new BBC programme

The academic’s latest TV show investigates the line between art and pornography

The academic and TV presenter Mary Beard has taken a bold approach to her new two-part investigation of the history and impact of the nude in art by choosing to sit as the subject of a naked portrait herself.

Beard’s new programme, Shock of the Nude, sees the academic examine famous examples from Michelangelo’s David to John William Waterhouse’s pre-Raphaelite painting Hylas and the Nymphs, and discuss the experience of sitting as a subject for Catherine Goodman.

The award-winning artist created half a dozen charcoal portraits over three two-hour sessions. Beard said she felt she had to pose herself in order to properly investigate the subject. “It was impossible to remain an elderly academic woman fully clothed,” she said.

“I felt like that was insincere and that people would say ‘we’ve had all this about power relationship and the vulnerability of the nude – you never got vulnerable, did you dear’. So I had to do it.”

One of the life drawings of professor Mary Beard.
One of the life drawings of professor Mary Beard. Photograph: Catherine Goodman/PA

Beard claimed in an interview with the Radio Times that the nude is always in danger of being “soft porn for the elite”. She said she had received abusive messages on Twitter over the comments.

“It’s quite a shock to think a slightly academic point about the difference between art and porn, produces that real sense of a violent reaction,” she said.

“If you’re look at the nude you can’t avoid that question of where is the line between art and porn?” Beard said her main aim for the series is to make viewers look at the nude portraits and sculptures with a fresh perspective.

She also spoke about the controversy over Sonia Boyce temporarily removing Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, which features young semi-naked girls, from the Manchester Art Gallery. It sparked a row about political correctness and modern art which Boyce said produced vitriol that was “really unhealthy”.

“It’s not a question of removing art because we don’t want to see it in public, we need to look harder at the images we look at,” she said. “And occasionally removing something temporarily is a good way to make people think. What Boyce was trying to do was make us look harder at the painting.”

Artist Catherine Goodman, left, with Mary Beard in the studio where they relaxed to an audiobook about Charles Dickens.
Artist Catherine Goodman, left, with Mary Beard in the studio where they relaxed to an audiobook about Charles Dickens. Photograph: Catherine Goodman/PA

The academic said the process of posing for her own nude portrait was “very relaxing”, adding that she and Goodman listened to an audiobook version of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens during the sessions.

“I could have walked away, for a lot of female models they’re doing it because that’s how they’re going to get their next meal and whatever the male artist is like they’re going to stick it out.”

The first episode of Shock of the Nude airs on BBC2 on Monday 3 February. Viewers will have to wait until the second episode to see Beard sit for her portrait. The BBC promises the series will show the nude’s “troubling power to provoke ideas about gender, sex and moral transgression”.


Lanre Bakare

The GuardianTramp

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